Adam Steiner of HereComesEveryone talks to Susie Boniface, the tabloid journalist behind Fleet Street Fox, the blogger who lifts the lid on the inner workings of the British media at The Old Bell pub in the heart of Fleet Street. The success of her blog has lead to the recent publication of her first book, The Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox, where Susie/Foxy talks about her divorce, the secret lives of dirty, pretty celebrities and the future of print media in the digital age.
HCE: How did you come up with the idea to start a blog and then publish a book where you talk about the very personal story of your on-going divorce and your experiences as a news reporter with almost twenty years in the business?
FFF: A few years ago, I was at an award show, and at about 3am I was in a drunken conversation with a colleague who asked me where I’d like to be in five years’ time. At the bar I saw a group of columnists, and that was it, I just said: “There, that’s where I want to be” – it was a lightbulb moment. One year later, I had an established blog with 10,000 followers.
The divorce gave the book a narrative to hang the journalism stories onto, and I also needed a more sympathetic side of myself to come through. Everyone hates reporters, for some people we’re on the same level as paedophiles, so it gave the book, and the character of Foxy, a more human aspect.
HCE: How difficult has it been to handle the shift from anonymity to publishing and promoting your book, coming out of your foxhole as it were?
FFF: Much of the story was already on the blog, so it’s not been that bad really. Sometimes it’s hard to say where the character ends and I begin. Fleet Street Fox is easy to like, even the name suggests that she’s sexy, cunning and exciting, and some people are much happier to be interviewed by the Foxy character than they are by me, the tabloid journalist.
HCE: What are your views on gender equality and the roles of women in journalism?
FFF: I actually think it’s a harder industry for men to get ahead. As I said in the book, it’s a lot easier being a female reporter; women often come across more empathetic, people are much more willing to talk to you, especially in sexual abuse cases, and managers and execs will always pay attention to a pretty girl, if that’s how you want to play it. There are generally more male execs, but bad reporters often become business managers, instead of remaining journalists because they love the job. It works in other ways too, for example, after the 7/7 attacks some papers scrambled to find a Muslim reporter so they could get members of the Islamic community to talk more openly.
HCE: What are your views on feminism?
I respect what previous generations of women have achieved. The first British daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, was published in 1702, by a woman called Elizabeth Mallet, above the White Hart Inn in Fleet Street.
People like my mum and my grandmother didn’t have the same opportunities as I did. When I had finished my A-levels, the school said: “what do you want to do?”, things were completely different for me. OK, there is still a wage gap between men and women, but in terms of career, women still have it better in journalism. I think a much more important issue is the amount of rape and gendered violence we still have in the UK, and the court’s low rates of successful conviction.
HCE: Following Leveson, public opinion of journalists is at a low, but in your book you argue that journalists require a lot of empathy, day to day, in order to do their job – are people right about journalists?
FFF: Journalists need empathy, because without it, they can’t do the job. You have to have some understanding of the situation you’re writing about and the people you’re interviewing to write well about them. With cases such as rape, you have a certain responsibility to report it well. But I think people will always see us a scum, worse than paedophiles, it’s just part of the job.
HCE: With the growing practices of churnalism/citizen journalism/phone-hacking, are journalistic standards on the slide?
FFF: journalists are very credulous people, they want to believe the people they speak to and the stories they hear, so lots of news stories are the same events told in a slightly different way, it can all start to sound the same. But sometimes when a reporter thinks they’ve found a new angle, it can make it very easy for them to push a slightly different story, that might not be entirely true.
“Churnalism” has been around for a long time, I think that internet and lazy reporting can make it worse – and deadlines have also gotten shorter. At the end of the day, anyone can be a journalist, if they find a story, write about it, post it on the internet – it’s become harder to say who is and isn’t a journalist.
I think the phone-hacking story was slightly overblown and it’s not a very serious crime in legal terms. If I had the opportunity to hack the conversations between Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, I would; I also think that important stories such as child trafficking, where there is no other way to get the story and a strong public interest, are sufficiently important to justify hacking phone messages.
HCE: And what about Leveson guidelines for restriction of the press?
FFF: The reason so many celebrities came forward to give evidence at Leveson, is that they’re often caught out by the press doing things they shouldn’t be and of course they don’t want other people to find out about it. If you’re in the public eye, you have to expect people to want to read about you, it’s when things turns sour, and the bad aspects of people come out, that people in the public eye start to complain and get the public on their side; it’s a great example of middle-class prurience and moral outrage. Most of the evidence given at Leveson came from journalists under fire, there were no ordinary reporters asked along to give a positive account of the trade.
HCE: What changes would you make to the press industry?
FFF: Leveson has just become something for individuals to hide behind, I think all you need is for journalists to pass an obligatory law exam and for bodies such as the PCC [Press Complaints Commission], which we were always taught to respect when I was learning the trade on a local paper, and for journalists to be judged by a changing group of experienced journalists.
HCE: You’ve written a lot about celebrities and the “Cinderella syndrome” [see FFF blog] that makes people aspire to a life of fame and money – do you find yourself tempted by this lifestyle since publishing a book and appearing on popular television programmes such as Newsnight and This Morning?
FFF: I would hate to be a celebrity. I’m drawn between sympathy for them and not caring because it’s a choice people have made, but I’m also aware of the pressures they face.I’ve only been recognised twice, once by a lady brandishing my book in Waterstones and another time on the tube, but that’s it so far.
HCE: Do you have any predictions for the future of journalism? Ways in which the industry needs to change to make money from electronic content?
FFF: With the internet we have a 24-hour news cycle but people still want to read and buy the news in print. If we’re going to make the internet pay, it needs to reflect the way people use it. Some sort of news-grazing culture, where you pay a few pennies for certain stories you want to read in-depth.
HCE: You’ve recently been teaching journalism students – what advice would you give to any aspiring journalists?
FFF: A journalist never gives up. Some people are too soft, too tough, or they get bored, but if you really want it, you’ll get there.
HCE: What’s next for Fleet Street Fox?
FFF: The second book will be about learning from my mistakes and meeting more people; the post-divorce years!
HCE: So, a happy ending then?
FFF: There’s no such thing as a happy ending, only new stuff that happens.